University of Otago scientists have been granted nearly
$1.6 million to undertake research which could make a
''game-changing'' difference in the fight against rheumatic
Rheumatic heart disease is largely unknown among developed
countries, but causes 160 deaths in New Zealand each year, an
outcome termed a ''national disgrace'' by Otago researcher
Prof Michael Baker.
One of the funded research projects will result in the first
big random, double-blind human clinical trial of Blis, a
probiotic food supplement, which is the brain child of
Australian-born Otago University microbiologist Prof John
Tagg. Small studies, already conducted in Italy, have shown
this probiotic greatly reduces the Group A Streptococcal
(GAS) sore throat infections that can result in rheumatic
Prof Baker, of the university's Wellington campus, and who is
also involved in the clinical trial, said that, if it proved
effective, the probiotic could then be used immediately as
part of efforts to prevent GAS sore throat, among high risk
populations throughout the country.
Otago researchers had long shown international research
leadership in this field, and were ''extremely grateful'' for
the funding, announced by the Health Research Council this
These researchers had been on a ''long journey'' to deal
effectively with a disease which was a ''huge problem'' in
New Zealand and in developing countries, he said.
The latest funding came from a Rheumatic Fever Research
Partnership, a joint initiative involving the Heart
Foundation, Cure Kids, Te Puni Kokiri, the Ministry of Health
and the HRC.
Prof Tagg (67) contracted rheumatic fever at age 12, in
Melbourne, and later decided, as a young microbiology student,
to seek an effective way of countering the disease.
Having spent several decades on the research which led to the
probiotic being developed, he said it was ''great'' that the
first large-scale clinical trial would now be undertaken.
Prof Julian Crane, of Otago's Wellington campus, has received
$790,319 to lead the study to measure the effect of the oral
probiotic, Strep salivarius, to prevent GAS sore throat among
a group at high risk of rheumatic fever.
The probiotic is a naturally occurring bacterium which uses a
bacteriocin-like inhibitory substance (BLIS) to kill the
bacteria causing GAS sore throat. The Ministry of Health's
sore throat programme already running in East Porirua schools
provided a ''unique opportunity'' to test this probiotic's
effectiveness, officials said.
Prof Baker has received $799,362 to conduct a case control
study to compare cases of rheumatic fever with controls that
did not have the disease, to identify important risk factors.
Prof Diana Lennon, of Auckland University, will receive
$798,000 to examine the success in countering the disease,
among different school programmes.
Dr Nigel Wilson, of the Auckland District Health Board
Charitable Trust, will also receive $800,000 to undertake a
study of rheumatic heart disease, using ultrasound equipment.